World crises have a habit of administering sudden geography lessons. Yesterday's terra incognitam can all too rapidly become today's crucible of conflict.

No doubt the untimely demise of Archduke Franz Ferdinand had our grandparents scurrying to the family atlas to find Sarajevo and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Indeed, our parents probably thumbed through the same pages to find Mukden, Abyssinia, and the Sudetenland as fascism set the world on its ear.

Having dug out our own atlases of late to establish the exact whereabouts of Afghanistan, we might do well to keep them out -- an open. Storm cloulds are gathering over Southwest Asia. And nowhere are they more lowering than over the Persian Gulf, out of whose wells flow two-thirds of the West's crude oil. With Soviet troops and aircraft massing to the north and Soviet naval units prowling the Arabian Sea, never has the region been in such peril.

A glance at a map of the Arabian peninsula invites one inescapable conclusion: Of all the Gulf states none is more strategically positioned than the fervently pro-Western Sultanate of Oman.

Bolted like a bracket onto the southeastrn edge of the sun-scorched Arabian peninsula, it commands both the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea from an 1,800 -kilometer sweep of coastline. More important, from a finger of territory at the tip of the Musandam peninsula, it stands sentinel over the vital, 24-mile wide Strait of Hormuz, through which some 77 tankers trundle every day.

The Kremlin is keeping a close watch on the vital choke-point. Last month the guided-missile cruiser Marshal Voroshilovm anchored there, presumably to monitor tanker traffic and eavesdrop on the aircraft-carriers Nimitzm and Coral Seam patrolling the Gulf of Oman with their escorts. A Soviet spy ship, bristling with antennae, has also been spotted in the Strait in recent weeks.

If the Persian Gulf is the bottle, Oman is the cork. The country's strategic position was not lost on Washington when, in an effort to counter the Soviet seizure of Afghanistan recently, it began to search urgently for military beachheads in the northern Indian Ocean. Last month a US mission to Oman secured an agreement in principle for air and naval units to make much greater use of base facilities in the country than hitherto.

According to a foreign Ministry spokesman in the Omani capital of Muscat, authorities are still deciding which installations the US will be permitted to use. He notes that Oman acceded to US requests for basing facilities in the country because of "the dangerous situation in the area," a situation made more perilous, he stresses, by the increased Soviet military presence in the Marxist People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen); the pact the Aden regime concluded with the Soviet Union last October; and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But he cautions: "The facilities under discussion exclude the granting of bases to the US or stationing of American forces on Omani territory."

Informed sources believe that the US Navy is interested in utilizing port facilities at Matrah near Muscat and at Raysut near Salalah in the southern province of Dhofar, renowned in antiquity for its heady frankincense. The Air Force, they add, is also examining facilities in Dhofar: specifically at Salalah and Thamarit. It is also expressing considerable interest in the former Royal Air Force base on Masirah Island, they assert, and in facilities at Seeb international airport west of the capital.

A knowledge source who visits Oman frequently claims that the country will be weakened rather than strengthened by permitting the US to use military facilities on its soil. "I'm sorry that it's come to this," he declares. "It needn't have. We are doing it in the name of regional security but any objective look at the history of the region this century would show that it has been far more regionally secure with bases out of there than with bases in there." Global nationalism and regional sentiment, he adds, is still "too raw" to permit foreign military facilities in the country.

He feels that after expressing its "deep, abiding concern" over the invasion of Afghanistan, the US should have relied on its warships to deter Soviet aggression in the Indian Ocean. "Symbols count for a lot out there," he says. "Every where they do, but more so out there."

If Oman seems unutterably remote to most Americans, it is somewhat better known to the British. In 1800, Britain signed a treaty with the Sultan of Muscat, expressing the hope that "the friendship of the two states may remain unshook till the end of time, and till the sun and moon have finished their revolving career." In the 19th century, Britain went on to forge several treaties of friendship and commerce with Muscat and Oman (as the country was then called) and in 1951 the association was confirmed by a Treaty of Friendship , Commerce, and Navigation.

Oman's first contact with Europeans occurred in 1508 when the Portuguese sacked Muscat and conquered parts of the coastal region including East Africa. The Omanis recaptured Muscat in 1650 and in 1698 drove the Portuguese from their East African possessions north of Mozambique.

Said bin Sultan (or Said the Great, as he became known) built an empire in Oman and East Africa and in 1832 transferred his capital to Zanzibar. After his death in 1856, his sons quarreled over his succession and in 1861, through the good offices of the British Government, the empire was divided into Zanzibar (and dependencies) and Muscat and Oman.

A large number of Britons work in Oman today. Several hundred run the Sultan's Armed Forces and the Royal Omani Police Force and many have a profound knowledge of the country and a deep affection for it. A good many are "old colonials" who saw service in Aden and India.

With a population of some 600-850,000 composed of arabs, Baluchis, East Africans, Indians, and Pakastanis, Oman is ruled by 39-year-old Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who, since ousting his father in 1970, has pulled the country from centuries-long backwardness. The Sultan, an absolute monarch and the 14th of the Al bu Said dynasty which has ruled the country since 1744, is also prime minister, foreign minister, defense minister, and minister of finance. Some years ago, the British made him an honorary Knight Commader of St. Michael and St. George, an order founded in 1818 with the motto "Token of a better age."

Tutored privately in Britain from the age of 16 until he entered the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, three years later, the future Sultan served as a lieutenant in the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) with Britains's Rhine Army and spent some 12 months studying local government with the Bedfordshire County Council.

When he returned home in 1963, his father, Sultan said bin Taimur, virtually imprisoned him in his palace at Salalah for the next seven years, insisting that life in Britain had corrupted him.

The old sultan, who acceded to the sultanate in 1932, ruled like a medieval despot. He kept slaves, tortured prisoners, and flogged those caught smoking. He banned music, movies, singing, dancing, photography and Western dress -- not to mention cigaretts, newspapers, flashlights, umbrellas, and the wearing of sunglasses. Those wishing to ride bicycles had to acquire a permit and anyone wanting to travel abroad had to obtain his express permission.

From twin peepholes in the second floor of his palace the old Sultan would snoop on his subjects through binoculars to see who was flouting his edicts. From 1958 to 1970, surrounded by hundreds of slaves and concubines, he ruled Oman from his palace at Salalah, issuing orders to officials in Muscat over a radiotelephone.

He had cause to be reclusive. During a military parade in Salalah in 1966, either a group of soldiers or one of his bodyguards attempted to assassinate him. A quick-thinking officer saved his life of pushing him off the saluting base. Thoroughly unnerved by the incident, he retired into his labyrinthine palace, taking with him an arsenal of rifles, machine guns, mortars, and ammunition.

The coup of July 23, 1970, which threw Omanis into an ecstasy of rejoicing, was not entirely bloodless. Sultan Said did not give up the reins of power easily. When the eminent Wali of Dhofar respectfully suggested that he abdicate , the Sultan whipped out a revolver and shot him, though not fatally. In a subsequent exchange of fire, Sultan Said was hit in the leg and buttock. A royal Air Force transport whisked him to Britain for medical treatment and he later moved to a suite at Claridge's Hotel in London, where he died two years later.

DEspite the coup and the fact that they were on the most formal of terms (the Sultan-to-be called him "Your Majesty"), Sultan Said and his son wrote to each other in subsequent months. "He wished me very well," Sultan Qaboos said recently, confessing that removing his father from power was one of the most agonizing tasks of his life.

When the young Sultan assumed control of the country in 1970, he was confronted with a monumental task: the country was racked with endemic disease, illiteracy, and poverty. insurgency, fomented by South Yemen, was rampant in the southern province of Dhofar. There were only three elementtary schools in the country and no hospitals, newspapers, telephones, radio, or television.

He immediately set about improving Oman's educational and health facilities, developing its material resources, and creating a modern infrastructure for the country. A modern international airport has since been built at Seeb, 36 kilometers west of Muscat, along with a deepwater port at Matrah. But there is still much work to be done: The country is dogged by a 90 percent illiteracy rate; an infant mortality rate of 145 per 1,000 (the US rate is 17 per 1,000); and a life expectancy of 47.

Observing that, in 1970, the country was "among the most underdeveloped countries in the world," a US government official declares that the Sultan reversed his father's "parsimonious attitude to development, and he's credited with that by the Omani people." Prof. John Duke Anthony of the Center for Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins University says that on balance the people of Oman feel "positive" about the Sultan, who, he says, brought the country "into the comity of nations" and secured it membership in the United Nations.

He met the current Sultan some years ago and remembers him as a "sensitive, gentle, and aesthetic soul," very soldierly in demeanor, who remains "extremely fond of the British family he lived with when he was at Sandhurst." A classical music lover, the Sultan is also a great devotee of Gilbert and Sullivan. In fact, he is said to have brought his entire set of Gilbert and Sullivan records home with him from Britain in 1963, only to have them destroyed by his father. When he seized power, one of his first action was to order another set of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company classics. In 1976, Sultan Qaboos married his cousin Sayyida Kamila who was then 14. As yet he has no heir.

British writer Andrew Duncan, who described a meeting with the Sultan in his recent book, "Money Rush," found him "an impressive-looking man dressed in long Arab robes enhanced by a vivid colored silk turban, and a khanjam (curved dagger) at the waist." He recalls that he was "tall, full-bearded, with alert, intelligent eyes." His lips, he felt, gave "a hint of sulkiness, of quick temper , or determination." Later, when he saw the Omani ruler in Iran (Sultan Qaboos was a great admirer of the Shah and perhaps still is), Mr. Duncan was less impressed. Dressed in a Western suit he felt he looked "slightly balding and nondescript." Mr. Duncan claims that US officials have found him "ineffectual and nervous" on his visits to Washington.

During their meeting in Muscat, the Sultan told Mr. Duncan that he admired the British "because they are loyal," adding that Britain "is a nation which takes things rather quietly. The British don't shout, and that is something I admire. They have a very calm way of doing things." But in his book, Mr. Duncan paints a somewhat unflattering picture of te British ex-colonials he encountered in Oman. "They are flotsam of the empire who have lived their adult lives abroad and could never return to the Britain that first inspired their loyalty because, in their eyes, it no longer exists. So they come to rest finally in Oman, where benevolent paternalism is appreciated."

Some hardly seem to be upholding British traditions of fair play and probity. A retired British of fair play and probity. A retired British army officer serving with the Omani army assured Mr. Duncan that "lots of English are on the take, and it makes me very ashamed. The rip-off is 25 percent. It used to be 7 percent. Only a few months ago, we had to get rid of someone who had taken $2 million in backhanders from contractors who built runways during the civil war [ in Dhofar]. He was given cash payments, so nothing could be proved. Now he is living in America."

But it would probably take a major scandal for the Sultan to lose confidence in the British, particularly in those British advisers that are close to him. He values them and enjoys their company.

When his arduous official duties permit it, he likes reading, shooting, and horse-riding. He has a taste for luxury cars and a considerable weakness for Porsches. He drives himself all over Oman -- nearly always at the head of the screeching motorcade.

Sultan Qaboos maintains several palaces -- a new $6 million pink creation on the Muscat waterfront beneath the old Portuguese Mirani fort; a more lavish $18 million one at Seeb, where he likes to relax with radio-controlled boats on an ornamental lake, and his father's palace at Salalah where he was born on Nov. 18 , 1940, and where he seems to spend more and more time these days.

In an interview with Time magazine last year, Sultan Qaboos said "I'd like to see us create a democracy for Oman, and I sincerely hope that day is not too far distant." He asserted he was guiding his people towards it.

Others are not so sure. "Qabus [sic] has never wavered in blocking democracy ," bellowed Fred Halliday in a recent edition of The Nation, decalaing that the Sultan does not permit the holking of majalis,m token tribal assemblies found in adjoining Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. "No democratic liberties of any kind are allowed and Qabus [sic] rules without any limits," wrote Mr. Halliday, an editorial associate of "New Left Review" and author of "Arabia Without Sultans."

Oman's critics point out that the Sultanate has no constitution, parliament, political parties, or elections, and that its press censorship and travel restrictions are thoroughly oppressive.

Professor Anthony believes that the Sultan is not interested in creating a Western-style democracy at the moment, even though his charismatic uncle and father-in-law, Said Tariq, "still a towering figure in the family," suggested in 1971 (when briefly prime minister) that Oman might begin to prepare for the day when it became a constitutional monarchy along British lines. But at a time when the battle against insurgency in Dhofar was still being waged, Tariq's views were deemed untimely, says Professor Anthony.

Now that Sultan Qaboos has married his uncle's daughter, the professor declares, "their concerns, needs, and interests are far more interlocked than ever before." Talk about political reform is more relevant these days, he says, noting that the Sultan can now draw on the political and intellectual support of his uncle, who he feels was "premature" with his talk of a constitutional monarchy along Western lines.

Professor Anthony observes that increased political participation at the popular level would "fit well" with the traditions of Oman's predominant Ibadhi Muslims. "It's basic tenets hold very fast to democratic ideals in that the accepted leader of the faithful need not be descended from the prophet Mohammed, neither he personally nor his tribe, but rather can be from any tribe, ethnic group or social class -- as long as he is sufficiently learned in matters of Islamic law, as well as being the most respected, venerated, and revered in their midst." And this he says is determined by election.

The largest group of Ibadhis in the Islamic world are to be found in Oman, where they have elected imamsm since the 8th century. From 1913 until 1920 the Ibadhis in Oman's mountainous interior rebelled: they wanted to be ruled by their elected religious leader. The conflict was resolved by the Treaty of Seeb which provided for mutual non-aggression and granted autonomy to the imam's followers while recognizing the sovereignty of Sultan Said.

Most tribes, though nominally loyal to the Sultan, Continued to obey the imam'sm authority but when he died in 1954, his successor, Ghalib bin Ali (unrecognized by the Sultan and unelected), broke the treaty and attempted to establish a separate principality with his brother Talib, using arms provided by Saudia Arabia.

Sultan Said called for British assistance and the Royal Air Force obligingly bombed crops and villages (the latter reportedly after the inhabitants had repaired to caves). In January, 1959, the Sultan's forces supported by 200 British troops, including men of the elite Special Air Service (SAS), stormed the rebel fastness in the Green Mountains, extinguished the revolt, and destroyed the Imamate. Ghalib and his brother fled to Saudi Arabia.

Although the South Yemeni-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman (PFLO) seriously challenged Sultan Qaboos for the first six years of his rule, it show little sign of reviving. In its battle against the Dhofar guerrillas, which lasted from 1964 to 1976, Oman was assisted by Britain, Iran, and Jordan. A British Army Training Team (generously supplied with SAS men, by all accounts) created and organized what became known as the Loyal Firqat Forces. The word "firqat" means "a group of men under arms." Irregular, para-military forces, armed and paid by the government, they were drawn from individual tribes and operated within their respective tribal areas. Some were recruited from the banks of ex-rebels. Their unrivaled local knowledge made them invaluable for reconnaissance, ambushes, raiding, and advice on enemy tactics and movements and they made no litte construction to ultimate victory. Today there are 22 Firqats numbering some 3,100 men.

King Hussein dispatched a squadron of Royal Jordanian Engineers to assist Sultan Qaboos during the rebellion. But the Shah of Persia's contribution to victory was larger: Iran had 4,000 troops in Dhofar at the height of hostilities. As the war wound down, civil aid programs became increasingly important in the parts of the province liberated from the rebels. They have been maintained and stepped up ever since.

By the end of the war, in 1976, Oman probably had the most efficient armed forces in Arabia. According to Omani sources, 200 British officers and NCOs are presently on loan to the Sultan's Armed Forces. The Ministry of Defence in London, citing a head count last September, puts the figure at 132. Oman has hired an additional 460 officers and NCOs, formerly members of the British armed forces. Surprisingly, there is little love lost between the two groups.

The 16,200-strong Omani Army, which includes a sizeable foreign component of Baluchs and Pakistanis, is commanded by a Briton, Major-Gen. johnny Watts, formerly commander of the SAS. It has 36 Saladin armored cars as well as quantities of TOW (tubed-launched, optically-tracked, and wire-guided) anti-tank weapons, but no tanks. Sultan Qaboos aims to fully omanize the army by 1983 or 1984.

The backbone of the Omani Air Force consists of a squadron of 12 Anglo-French Jaguars, supersonic strike fighters which can operate from roads as well as grass and desert airstrips. They are flown by Royal Air Force and contract pilots. The A The backbone of the Omani Air Force consists of a squadron of 12 Anglo-French Jaguars, supersonic strike fighters which can operate from roads as well as grass and desert airstrips. They are flown by Royal Air Force and contract pilots. The Air Force also fields 11 Hawker Hunters, some of which are flown by Omani pilots, as well as 8 British BAC-167 Strikemaster light attack aircraft. For air defense it relies on 28 Rapier low-level anti-aircraft missile systems with 'Blindfire' radar.

The British-officered Omani Navy has six fast patrol boats and would like more. In fact, to patrol the Strait of Hormuz from its newly-created base at Goat Island in the Musandam peninsula in the absence of any help from the Iranian Navy, it would dearly like three mine-sweepers and some anti-submarine helicopters. But they are costly items fro a country which already devotes half of its spending to defense.

The Royal Oman Police commanded by Sri-Lankan born Briton Felix da Silva is a preliminary force with its own air wing of helicopters and transport aircraft. According to author Andrew Duncan, da Silva "has ingratiated himself with the Sultan to an extent that the police are all-powerful."

Although Oman gives every indication of being in robust health, it faces some serious and little-recognized problems in the view of some experts. Writing in a recent London Financial Time Survey on Oman, Dr. John Wilkinson, a lecturer in geography at the University of Oxford, observed that "little attention has been paid to the real needs of the villagers in the now politically quiescent interior." These needs, he wrote, "are rooted in the organization of the falajm community, a village structure based on the distribution of water."

The main form of falajm in Oman, he explains, consists of a horizontal well tunneled into groundwater at the foot of the mountains, upon which a whole village depends, providing it not only with all-important water for irrigation but also with an all-important sense of unity. The replacement of the communal water supply with pumps has destroyed this time-honored cohesiveness, he alleges , with a resulting collapse of "the old socio-political structure" and "a vacuum of organization in the villages." The trend is also contributing to the abandonment of the land, he observes.

In the same Financial Times survey, Howard Bowen-Jones, professor of geography at England's University of Durham, pronounced Oman's dependence on food imports "frightening." The country, he says, was all but self-supporting in food a generation ago. The culprit is oil wealth, he says. People are simply leaving the land for more lucrative employment elsewhere in Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

Oil was discovered in northern Oman near Fahud in 1964 and Petroleum Development Oman (PDO) began production in 1967. Oman is only a small oil producer, the second smallest in the Arabian peninsula with an output of 297,000 barrels a day. Production peaked in 1975 and thereafter Oman's oil prospects looked dim, but the Shell-run PDO struck it rich in Dhofar in 1978. However, diversification of the economy away from oil has yet to be started.

Internal problems apart, Oman still faces the threat of invasion from South Yemen, though the prospect may well be a remote one. Defense sources in Washington point out that it would be extremely difficult for Aden to launch a conventional attack into dhofar primarily because of the rugged terrain its forces would have to traverse. It is roadless wadi country, particularly unsuitable for tanks. "No sweeping-type Rommel armor there," says a source, adding that, in any case, with its TOW missiles Oman has "an excellent antitank capability." Lunging into Dhofar in an attempt to seize the Strait of Hormuz, the source adds, would be "like trying to take new York by invading Galveston."

The South Yemeni army numbers 19,000 men. Its armored forces consist of 260 Soviet T-34 and T-54 tanks as well as 10 Saladin armored cars and 10 Ferret scout cars of British manufacture. It also possesses some useful anti-aircraft weapons. The Air Force fields 109 combat aircraft, including 50 MiG-21s.

Although South Yemen still supports the PFLO and refuses to recognize the Sultanate, one Washington-based analyst of Arabian Peninsula affairs believes that it is less interested in grabbing Oman or North Yemen, that in its own consolidation. "Since its independence in 1967, it has scarcely had a month in its existence where that was a meaningful prospect," he says, observing that it has been subjected to repeated cross-border incursions from North Yemen, a fact the press has studiously ignored, he insists."It invaded North Yemen last year to show that two can play that game. But more than anything else the South Yemenis want to be left alone to attend to their own socialism-in-one-country Stalinism."

Oman has good cause to be concerned about the stability of its neighbors. Saudi-Arabia has looked far less secure since Muslim fanatics seized Mecca's Grand Mosque and held it for two weeks last November. The discovery of an embryonic political opposition along with illegal weaponry in secret desert caches profoundly shocked the royal family which cannot have been encouraged by a secret US report warning that the regime might not survive beyond 1982.

All is far from well in the adjoining United Arab Emirates (UAE), a union of seven princedoms hurriedly patched together by Britain before it scuttled out of the Gulf in 1971. There is simmering rivalry between Abu Dhabi and Dubai and disputes over how to distribute the federation's oil wealth. Gasoline is pricey, and excessive drilling is threatening to taint wells with seawater.

Early in 1978, Oman rushed troops to the border with the UAE. It was a false alarm. UAE troops were simply holding maneuvers and the Oman Research Department, the British-directed intelligence service, was blamed for a faulty reading of events. But it served to underscore Muscat's nervous preoccupation with its own security.

Oman almost certainly has strong ties with the Central Intelligence Agency. On Feb. 3, 1972, the influential "Economist Foreign Report" declared that the Sultan had visited London the previous year to meet "senior members of the CIA, who put the preposition that the CIA, should finance his regime." It reported that the men from Langley "insisted the deal should be implemented through the Saudi Arabian Government" and asserted that, allegedly, a sum of $150 million had been mentioned.

Oman probably also has close contact with the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), in view of the fact that the country's intelligence chief is a Briton and that its competing secret services were set up by the British. Writing in the New Stateman magazine recently, Duncan Campbell claimed that Omani intelligence agents had been trained by an organization in London known as Diversified Corporate Services Limited.

The firm's personnel, he asserted, came almost entirely from the SIS, the British Army's Intelligence Corps" or from other secret departments." Diversified Corporate Services Limited, which he implied was little more than a front, had also carried out secret missions in Oman, he claimed. In a controversial series that examined the British "security state" he alleged that when the firm set up an "italian end" in Rome the training of Omani agents was switched there. Oman would be a logical base for both CIA and SIS activities in the Arabian Peninsula and adjoining countries such as Iran. The Special Air Service, which is known to carry out missions for SIS, would certainly seem to be at home in the Sultanate.

Of all the facilities Oman might permit the US to use, the former Royal Air Force base on 44-mile long Masirah Island is probably the most attractive to Pentagon chiefs. Britain obtained use of the island base in 1958 at a time when it still maintained a military role "east of Suez" and gave it up in March, 1977 .

British defense planners apparently envisaged Masirah as something of an Indian Ocean Gibraltar or Singapore. In 1962, at Ras [Text Omitted from source]

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today